The Wedding Banquet (1993)

Taiwan

4.5*
Director: Ang Lee
Screenwriters:
Ang Lee,
Neil Peng,
James Schamus
Director of Photography:
Jong Lin
Running time: 106 minutes

Original title: 喜宴
Transliterated title: Xǐ yàn

The Wedding Banquet, Ang Lee’s second feature film, was released in 1993, right in the middle of a movement in American filmmaking that would come to be known as New Queer Cinema, consisting of films with gay themes, treated openly, mainly produced by gay filmmakers such as Todd Haynes and Gregg Araki. The Wedding Banquet is quite different from the rest of the films of the time in that it is infinitely more accessible to a mainstream audience and was not made by a gay director. However, as Ang Lee would prove more than a decade later with his elegant adaptation of Annie Proulx’s short story, Brokeback Mountain, he is perfectly attuned to the human complexity of his films’ gay characters and seeks to portray them as ostracised despite their similarity to the average straight viewer, rather than pretending that they are different in any particular way. Another point that is noteworthy, given the film’s release in 1993, is the lack of any reference to AIDS – instead, the filmmakers have decided to make a film about secrets and the unnecessary tension (indeed, chaos) that develops when someone is more ashamed of themselves than they are afraid of their parents’ potential reaction to the news that their son or daughter is gay.

In New York, Wai Tong is a Taiwanese American who’s been with his American boyfriend, Simon, for the past five years. Wai Tong has not told his parents, who are living in Taiwan, that he is gay, but since they want a grandchild, they constantly sign him up for singles’ clubs, and forward the questionnaires, which he dutifully fills out, albeit with criteria that seem impossible to meet.

The film does not concentrate on the issue of sexuality as much as it draws our attention to the ubiquitous – and unnecessary – secrecy, from all sides. Everybody has secrets and yet they all refuse to share these secrets for fear that they will be rejected as a result of their honesty. Naturally, when Wai Tong and his tenant Wei Wei decide to get married – he so that his parents can see their son married, she so that she can get a green card – and his parents turn up for the big day, this secrecy eventually leads to tension between him Simon, who only wants to impress his boyfriend’s parents, even though they have no idea what role he plays in their son’s life.

“It’s kind of stupid – all these lies. But I’m used to it,” admits Wai Tong to Simon, but once his parents arrive the situation quickly spins out of control and he becomes entangled in his own web of lies. Luckily, most of these scenes are in Taiwanese, for actor Winston Chao is very unconvincing in English, having a painful elocution of simple words that have no emotional resonance coming from him. But while the acting might be sub-par, Ang Lee’s direction is flawless, as shown by his masterful handling of giant groups of extras during the scenes at the wedding banquet, as well as his decision to film many important dialogues (between Wai Tong’s mother and Wai Wai; between Wai Tong and his mother; and between Wai Tong’s father and Simon) in single takes.

What makes the film so special is the care it takes with its characters – and not just Wai Tong’s parents. The small gestures that Simon makes, sometimes in the background, barely visible to the camera, are striking when seen within the context of his place in the film. He has been marginalised by his boyfriend, for the sake of pretending that all is well even though the whole narrative that develops – including his presence at his boyfriend’s wedding to a girl – is close to farcical, but he keeps a straight face and always wants to make sure that Wai Tong is feeling as comfortable as possible, that he is taken care of. The interaction is beautiful and the fact that Ang Lee focuses on such details is impressive and enriches the human dimension of a film that could easily have been filled with comical caricatures.

It’s not always easy to empathise with Wai Tong’s self-pity, but Ang Lee’s story is full of twists and turns, and even the smallest scenes have either narrative of physical energy. It is a film that anticipates the director’s subsequent work on the plains of Wyoming and while it might not confront LGBT issues as aggressively as other filmmakers from the early nineties, it makes gay characters seem more human than they do in the films of these other militant filmmakers.